Located off the South-eastern tip of peninsula
India, Sri Lanka offers a mix of typically Asian birds and some of its own
endemics. The birding is of a high standard, not so much for the numbers of
species to be seen, but the quality of the birds and the views they generally
give. For many birders, it is the large percentage of endemic species which is
the lure, but this misses a trick, since there are also some excellent non
endemics as well. That being said, when birding the island, it is difficult not
to get caught up in the chase for all the local specialities, some of which are
exceptional in their own right (such as Blue Magpie, Red-faced Malkoha, and who
could miss out Junglefowl?).
Sri Lanka is divided into two climatic areas - the wet zone of the
South-west, and the dry zone of the rest of the country.
With a week on the island, I chose to concentrate on the wet zone area, where
the April timing meant comparatively less rain, since the monsoon in this area
is towards the end of the calendar year. Focusing on one zone would tend to
limit the amount of travel in the time available, and all but one or two of the
endemics (Woodshrike and possibly Scarlet-fronted Barbet, if the latter is indeed
a true species) are to be found here. Guidance both for locating the birds and
navigating the generally unmarked roads means that a guide is almost essential
- I chose Prasanjith Caldera, or Jith or short, (see below) who offered a
superb service for a personal tour, and at a much more reasonable cost than
some of the larger companies (where the birds usually have to be shared between
a group). I travelled to Sri Lanka with Kuwait Airways from London Heathrow,
refuelling at Kuwait, and Jith was at the airport to pick me up.
the website of Jith, who I used as the guide and organiser of the trip. Partly
because I was on my own, but mainly due to the country being difficult to
negotiate, and the speciality birds even more taxing to track down without
local knowledge, I broke with a birding long habit and enlisted help with my
trip. My friends and I had come across Jith at the Rutland Water Bird Fair in
2006, and they had subsequently used him the
January following. It is difficult to imagine that he
has only been organising tours as a business since 2005, even more so when you observe his excellent local knowledge
and identification skills.
One of the beauties of Jith's trips is that he
will tailor them to your own needs, with a more than reasonable cost. This
includes itinerary, driver, accommodation (half board), and entrance fees. He will even alter the itinerary as the trip
is under way to react to local and/or bird conditions.
Sinharaja Man and Biosphere reserve
This is one of the jewels in the crown in nature terms within Sri Lanka. The
reserve is set at around 300m above sea level, which is a moderate elevation.
It contains mainly tropical rainforest, and this
forms part of one of the only remaining tracts of primary forest on the island
(although much of the birding is within the adjacent secondary growth).
Entrance to the reserve itself is strictly
controlled, this being through one port of
entry about 2 km above Sinharaja village. A
fee is payable, and walking the reserve must be accompanied by a guide. From a
birding perspective, there is one main track which runs to and beyond a
research station, although there appear to be one or two offshoots which climb
through the forest (ascending 740m along a 1km hike).
There is also a walk down from
the reserve entrance, which cuts through the forest for around 2 km, ending at
the village, where the main reception to Sinharaja is also located. The village
is noted for being the more reliable spot for Green-billed Coucal, as well as
one two of the more common species, such as Sri Lanka Swallow, which wasn't
seen anywhere else in this area.
Located in the mountains at
around 2000 metres, Nuwaraeliya is the town where we were based, and from which
some of the higher elevation birds were sought. Temperatures were much more
temperate here, being almost jumper cool in the morning and evening, although
normal daytime was still quite hot:
Located within the town itself,
this is a contained entrance fee park which is well used by the locals (and
presumably tourists in season). It contains tracts of lawn, interwoven with
paths, bushes, and a stream along its length. There is a reasonable selection
of common birds within the park, but it can also offer Pied Thrush in the
Nuwaraeliya mixed forest
Found by taking a track from the
head of the lake and past vegetable gardens, this is home to many of the higher
elevation specialities, prime of which is Sri Lanka Bush-Warbler, which must be
hunted for at ground level within the forest and with some patience. Really
good news is that there are no leeches at this altitude!
Hakgala Botanical Gardens
These were kindly established in
1860 by the British who, with tremendous foresight, premonitioned the interest
the site would engender for 21st Century birders. As with most other botanical
gardens, these are a popular tourist and visitor spot. However, when we were
there, most of these people congregated at spots not far from the entrance. The
gardens are located on a slope, with footpaths meandering up along through the
artificially created vegetation. The good news is that the birds do not
necessarily favour a more natural environment, making this a particularly good
spot for flycatchers amongst others.
Between the gardens and the town
is a reliable spot for Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. It is set on the corner of
the road, adjacent to a vegetable stall. Just below this is a stream and poorly
defined waterfall - ideal habitat for the birds, despite the constant comings
and goings of the locals. Best views we had were at first light next to the
stall - don't be put of by ghostly voices from within, since the stall seems to
double as a home!
This village is situated at
approximately the same altitude as Sinharaja, and offers a similar selection of
birds, although one or two of the specialities are only really available at
Sinharaja. The temperature seems to be slightly higher and more sapping at
Kitungala, and with the rain showers less predictable. The forest is the main habitat,
but the land around Sisira's River Lodge is varied and has an impressive
selection of birds:
Sisira's River Lodge
The buildings are loosely
connected, and are built in as more or less a part of the surrounding forest.
This woodland, and ultimately forest, abuts both banks of the fairly impressive
river flowing through. A walk up the track from the lodge finds a clearing next
to the police station, and there are impressive views of the surrounding
mountains from here. Diverting left on ascending the track through one of the
driveways finds a small gate to the wetter small meadows/paddies, which are
bisected by a rough path used by the locals. Within a stone's throw of my room,
I saw Chestnut-backed Owlet, Layard's Parakeet, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Brown-headed
Barbet, and Lesser Goldenback amongst a host of other tasty birds.
View from Sisira's River Lounge restaurant area
Kitungala Forest from village area
Despite having the reputation for
a similar array of birds to Sinharaja, the birding here is of a very different
nature. To enter the forest proper, the length of the village has to be
negotiated first, which can have its own avian rewards. The downside for the
visitor is that an electricity supply has led to music and television - not a
hearty background for the ardent naturalist. It does provide feeding and nesting
for a variety of species, and they can be easier to see than in the denser
forest. The latter is found by walking beyond and slightly upwards from the end
of the village. Our visit found it quiet for birds, but it would seem the usual
rules of forest birding - patience, time and neck breaking observation - are
needed for the best catch.
This is the only accommodation which adjoins
the Sinharaja Reserve, so much so that the entrance is only a 100 metre walk
from the door of the bedroom. The next
closest accommodation is at the main
reception to the park, which is a 4x4 vehicle drive about 1 km down from the entry post. Martin has built the
premises up more or less from scratch. There are 6 twin rooms, and a dormitory
for 10 sharing.
My room was very basic but more than adequate
for a birding stay, with shelves for gear, and a single socket for charging up
the weight of equipment which seems necessary for 21st century birding. The
food is naturally made on the premises, and was a great experience, if basic. They must have thought I needed
feeding, if the number of dishes with varying contents just for me was an
indication. Suffice to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the variety of fare on offer. They also tried palming me off with the
western breakfast of omelette and toast,
until I rapidly discovered that the kitchen could be raided for early morning
curry. The room had one electricity socket which
was of the Indian type D variety.
Alpine Lodge, Nuwaraeliya
There seems to be a profusion of
accommodation in Nuwaraeliya, ranging from individual B&B's to the largest
hotel which is the Indian Grand. The Alpine Hotel is more than adequate, being
of a medium size, and having comfortable appointment. My room was actually
quite large, with king sized bed and even a TV. There are no birds on the
doorstep, since the building is in a loosely residential area, but the lake and
Victoria Park are only a 5 minute walk away. Evening meal seemed to have a set
menu choice, which looked a little pan-European, but I asked for something more
Sri Lankan and received a treat of a feast. The room had 2 types of sockets -
UK square pin and South African round pin.
Sisira's River Lodge, Kitungala Web site
The location of the lodge is
ideal for birding - within an area of woodland, adjacent to a river on one
side, and clearings with gardens and slightly marshy small meadows on the
other. My room was standalone, and had a balcony which overlooked the river.
There were 2 single beds in a reasonable sized room, but the best part was the
bathroom - open air, with a shower that was more of a mini-waterfall. The
restaurant is also open air, and the food Sri Lankan style and of good quality.
I had two electricity sockets in the room, both taking type D Indian plugs.
- Take leech socks - the little parasites are abundant on the
lowland rainforest. I found that a combination of the socks, 50% deet gel
on the exposed legs, and 50% deet spray around the shoes was sufficient to
allow shorts to be worn, resulting in only one
successful bite during the whole week
- Temperatures are generally high, but early morning and late
afternoon in the mountains (such as at Nuwaraeliya) are cool enough for a
jacket or fleece
- An umbrella and/or rain mac are essential. Despite
being there in the dry season, the area I visited is the wet zone, which
usually meant sunny mornings and partially wet afternoons
- For those with the modern plethora of rechargeable toys, such as
digital cameras, mobile phones, etc, it is worth taking a variety of
adapter plugs. I found a combination of Indian type D, UK square pin, and
South African round pin to be used. The European two pin is also supposed
to fit, but would need a larger earth pin included to unlock the females
in the wall socket
- Sri Lankan food is very good, but some places try to adapt to the
British palate. It is worth asking for a Sri Lankan meal - the Alpine
Hotel tend to have a European menu as standard unless asked, and Martin's
Lodge will proffer omelette and toast for breakfast unless the kitchen is
raided for curry
For identification, “A Field
Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka” by John Harrison (published by Oxford
University Press) is ideal, with good illustrations and reasonable text. The
island is also covered as part of “The Guide to the birds of the Indian
Subcontinent” by Inskipp, Inskipp, and Grimmett, but it is not quite as easy to
tease out the Sri Lankan birds from the larger numbers of the mainland.
“The Photograhic Guide to the Snakes and other Reptiles of Sri Lanka” by
Indraneil Das and Anslem de Silva (New Holland Publishers Ltd) is also very
useful, since some should be encountered during a trip.